Friday, February 1, 2008

Zora on Film: Has Hollywood Helped Pave the Way for Obama?

After voters have seen several black presidents on screen, are they more likely to elect one in real life? NPR's Michele Norris recently raised this question to Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts aka The Notorious PhD. "I'm a bit hesitant to say that because James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haysbert played a president on a TV show or in a movie, it means Barack Obama can be president," Boyd responded. "I think that's a bit of a stretch."

Boyd goes on, though, to say that such representations — especially those like 24's, beamed weekly into American living rooms — "may have unconsciously made some things in society seem less troubling" than if there'd been no pop-culture pictures of a black president.

I'm betting that a lot of folks will take issue with Dr. Boyd's response. Leaders within the African-American community have been pushing for decades to have more positive representations of Negroes in the media. The result is that we regularly see African-Americans playing the roles of well-to-do professionals who are in positions of power. (For some reason, television casting directors love seeing African-American women in the role of judges -- the Law & Order spin-offs must be the most consistent employer of middle-aged, black female extras in the industry.) The irony is that the majority of the most blatant stereotypical imagery we see in popular culture today is produced by ourselves and for ourselves --> T_ler P_rry.

With Hollywood favorites like Denzel Washington, Bill Cosby and Will Smith, we've been looking pretty damn good on television and film over the last two decades (local news broadcasts not included). Some might say, too good. The problem is that the progress we've made on the cinematic screen does not reflect the progress we've made on the street. Liberals in Hollywood are producing symbols that are not grounded in reality. These symbols may actually be negatively affecting African-American progress.

The power of the media in shaping American perceptions of reality has been a regular theme on this blog. Because we are still a very segregated nation, most white Americans get a lot of their information about black Americans from the television. In places with marginal black populations like New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana, Utah and New Mexico, media images are even less likely to be balanced by real life interactions with African-Americans. If all they're seeing is images of well-off, powerful Negroes, then tales of black poverty and racial discrimination must fall on deaf ears.

I live in a small, New England town where I can count the number of African-Americans on my fingers and toes. All of us are professionals who are associated with the local college. We are surrounded by a lot of deep and profound poverty. It is nearly impossible to talk with Whites who have grown-up in this area about racial inequality and discrimination. From what they can observe, African-Americans have actually moved ahead of Whites. Most of them barely have a high-school education, so you can forget about discussing symbolic imagery and media manipulation with them.

All of the positive images of African-Americans are surely feeding what social theorists would term realistic group conflict. This is especially likely in this time of economic difficulty with the competition for jobs and benefits growing more fierce each day. We should not have been surprised at all that Obama lost in New Hampshire. Bill Clinton wasn't surprised. He knew immediately why Obama lost and sought to nourish the seeds of conflict with his comments on the "race card." The Clinton camp knew that they couldn't win the South Carolina battle, but they are looking long-term at the war. For all of Obama's talk about "hope," he has to also acknowledge (at least among his strategists) that he also inspires a lot of fear.

With all of the black presidents we have seen on screen, only African-Americans are more likely to elect a black president. For them, the symbols represent possibilities that were perhaps unimaginable before: "Maybe we can win? Maybe we can be successful?" For other groups, the media symbols of Negro success are more likely to inspire fear, or apathy at the very least. I would argue that the lack of support for Obama among Latino Democrats is further evidence of this.

Does this mean that we should go back to being portrayed as maids and field hands? Of course, not. We do, however, have to make sure that we are portrayed in a balanced and realistic manner. It doesn't serve any of us to live in a "fantasy land."


gordon gartrelle said...

Two earlier comedic depictions of black presidents come to mind. The first is this one from The Richard Pryor Show 30 years ago. The second was an updated version from In Living Color around 1990. In it, Jesse Jackson was the president in the near future.

But I don't understand your interpretation of Obama's loss in New Hampshire. Considering the substantial gap he made up in such a short time, I'd say that talk about the fear he inspired is a bit misplaced in the case of NH.

Zora said...

S.C. doesn't count because of the large numbers of voting black Democrats. Let's see what happens in the states with very small numbers of blacks.

Invisible Woman said...

Don't forget Tiny Lister aka "Debo" as president in the 5th Element, haha.

gordon gartrelle said...

Forgot about Tiny Lister, but he was prez of Earth, wasn't he?


We've seen that scenario played out in a caucus (Iowa, where Obama defeated two strong white candidates) and a primary (New Hampshire, where he only lost by 2 percentage points). And in both states, he was trailing by wide margins only weeks earlier.

I wouldn't have expected you to echo Bill "Southern Strategy" Clinton. If SC doesn't count because of its large number of black voters, do the states with very few black voters not count either?

Zora said...


I think that we are talking past each other. I'm not saying that S.C. doesn't count in larger terms, I'm saying that it doesn't count in testing the idea that Obama will have to struggle to win in states with very few blacks.

I think that Obama has an uphill battle as his viability is solidified. When Obama is just an idea, whites can vote for him, feel good about voting for a black man, but rest assured that he'll never win. When Obama is a viable challenger, there is a whole other calculus. In Iowa, Obama was an idea ...

gordon gartrelle said...

But Zora, with the exception of Dodd, Biden, and perhaps Romney, all of the candidates are/were ideas, whether positive or negative:


Zora said...

ok, gordon.